FEATURE – “I’m an American citizen, he’s hitting me,” Cheryl Sim said she screamed to police on her last captive day in a two-bedroom home in Chennai, India. It was a home that housed nine people including herself and the man who had, two years before, wooed her in.
Unbeknownst to her parents and friends, who thought she was working and enjoying a new life in India, Sim, now 42, of Ivins, endured a gradually darkening nightmare that she has described as captivity to a man and his family for just shy of two years. Today, Sim tells the story of how she found herself trapped in a hostile domestic environment which began in July 2011 and ended in June 2013.
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Videocast by Samantha Tommer, St. George News
Having previously lived in Hyderabad under a work visa, when a job opportunity presented itself in 2011, Sim was persuaded to leave her job at Target in St. George and return to India as a communications trainer for Sutherland Global Services, a business process outsourcing company in Chennai.
It wasn’t long before Sim found not only adventure, but love. Meeting co-worker Craig Cobb-Phillips, an Anglo-Indian, Sim found him “handsome and charming” and the two began to date.
“He was very sweet and very caring and he was funny, my stomach would hurt, I would laugh so much,” Sim said.
Incremental steps to subservience
In the spring of 2011, Sim’s work took her to Mumbai for two months, during which time her roommate, Timothy Clark, an American co-worker, moved back to the U.S. He paid the rent, he said, left Sim’s belongings in the rental home which they shared and his set of keys in the mailbox.
“He seemed like a really nice guy,” Clark said of Cobb-Phillips. “He seemed really really protective, seemed like he liked her.”
It felt like an honor, Sim said, when Cobb-Phillips told her she was to come live with him when he picked her up at the airport. The two drove by her house and found it locked. Cobb-Phillips also had keys to her place and may have changed the locks himself, her former roommate Clark said in retrospect. Whatever the reason, Sim never retrieved her personal belongings, and moved into Cobb-Phillips’ house in July 2011 with only her suitcase.
“In the Indian culture, for a man to bring a woman to his house you’re in a serious serious relationship and looking to marriage,” Sim said. “It was a compliment to me that I was able to live there.”
That first night, Cobb-Phillips told Sim that she no longer needed to work. Sim said she made more money than he did and if they were to be married it made sense to her that he would want to take care of her because of Indian culture and tradition.
Her thinking was not inconceivable, former roommate Clark said. “She was making six to ten times more than him – she made in a month what he would make in a year. Indian men are very controlling,” he said, “it looks very bad for a man if a woman working is making more than him.”
But the effect of her quitting her job was that she was far from her American home, living in India under the auspices of a work visa while no longer working. Cobb-Phillips assured her, she said, that he would manage the visa issue.
He then took away her access to friends. “You don’t need your friends because you’re with me now,” she said he told her. And though it struck her as possessive, she said she thought it was cultural.
She was directed the first night to a sofa in a common room where, she said, in time she came to be confined and allowed nowhere else in the house.
Within days, Cobb-Phillips replaced her phone with another phone that was devoid of her contacts and subject to his monitoring. “Obviously, I thought that’s odd,” Sim said, “but again I just thought it’s part of the culture, the man.”
And then he took away “her voice.” Cobb-Phillips’ family also lived at the home and tolerated Sim’s opinions at first. Sim was vocal, she said, about their prejudices and she expressed her religious differences. But as the family’s pushback increased, she said it was not long before she was not allowed to speak unless spoken to, and would have her food and liberties withheld from her if she did not remain silent.
Sim’s role was a subservient one within what might be described as a tightly knit, dysfunctional household. Cobb-Phillips’ mother, Yoland, maintained a matriarchal rule. His father, Clifford, Sim found to be intelligent and conversant in art, science, architecture and the Bible; a professor even, she said, but he was exiled outside on a cot because he drinks alcohol, which is forbidden in their culture. Cooking and cleaning were the exclusive domain of Cobb-Phillips’ sister-in-law, Lorraine, and Lorraine denied Sim access to the kitchen to cook or to obtain her own food from within the house. Sim’s designated duties were nanny to two young children and daily walks into town to do the family’s specified shopping.
In the beginning, Sim said the family fed her nonstop and even made vegetarian dishes observant of her preferred diet. “When they feed you, it’s a sign of love,” she said softly.
But by five months into her arrested life in the home, the family had stopped feeding her. Sim lost weight rapidly and would soon be a fragile 100 pounds, a far cry from who she was before moving into the home. Clark remembers her before he left Chennai: “Cheryl was a nice healthy plump girl – she was all about the food, loved to go exploring, loved the Indian people, was trying to learn the language, she enjoyed it,” he said.
Her one daily escape, in which she was required to walk into town to do the family’s shopping, was tightly controlled, Sim said. She was required to report to whom she had spoken, where she went, what she did, and to account for every rupee spent, all on a strict time allotment. She said she always felt like she was being watched.
As early as October 2011, Sim realized she was trapped; and yet she continued “enslaved,” she said, until 2013.
“I started feeling like ‘what is happening, why did I move here?’” she said. “I did not feel I could leave volitionally. The doors weren’t locked but he and his family made me feel like something would happen if I left.”
Keeping her mouth shut was not the only prohibition that, if violated, would subject her to punishment. By November 2011, Cobb-Phillips began summoning Sim upstairs to perform sexual favors.
“I was just a robot, I would stare into space,” Sim said, describing 15 minutes of satisfaction she gave him short of intercourse. “I was his prostitute,” she said.
“He wanted me to come upstairs to help him out,” Sim said, “or he would not feed me. I felt disgusted that another human being could have that much control over someone, but I was afraid of what he’d do.”
Fear of Cobb-Phillips’ anger controlled Sim. “His eyes would get all beady and wild, you could see them shaking,” Sim said, “he would clench his fists, you could see blood pumping through his veins, so I know he was probably high on adrenaline, and I think he liked it.”
By nine months into her stay at the Cobb-Phillips house, Sim, a self-described voracious reader, was no longer allowed to read. “They wouldn’t even let me read the newspaper,” Sim said. “His mother would hold it up in front of me after she read it in the morning and say ‘this is rubbish,’ and throw it away.”
By ten months, she was not allowed her own music and TV choices. “I knew they were taking away my freedoms,” she said. “I was a prisoner even though the padlocks were not on yet.”
The progression of control continued as Cobb-Phillips soon denied Sim the necessities for personal hygiene, claiming they were too expensive – although the same thrift was not applied to products for the rest of the family, she said. He even refused to replace her worn out, oversized clothing, she said, with the exception of a T-shirt or two, and a pair of his own shorts.
“I used to have to tie my pants up with a piece of rope,” Sim said, “because they would literally fall off my body.”
In time, the last vestige of personal volition was removed as Sim was restricted to one bathroom and shower break per day. “I was isolated to a back room and even had to ask permission to use the bathroom,” Sim said. “I was given five minutes, if I was 10 seconds over, someone in the family would bang on the door to get me out of there.”
It was there, behind a closed bathroom door, that Sim managed to make contact with a friend whose email address she remembered. From the privacy of her bathroom chamber, Sim and Raj P. communicated often in short electronic messages over several months through a secret system the two worked out. Sim messaged him of being sick, having seizures, being in pain; Raj P. would respond with prayer and comfort. It was a long time before she was entirely forthcoming with Raj P. She was ashamed, she said.
Resigned to die
By January 2013, Sim said, Cobb-Phillips had padlocked the exit doors to the house from the inside. Only he, his mother and his brother had keys. As the walls closed in on Sim, she stopped communicating with Raj P. for months because, she said, she knew she was going to die and had given up.
Although she was permitted to call her parents once every two weeks, with a strict 20-minute limit monitored by Cobb-Phillips, Sim said she was too embarrassed to tell her parents the truth.
Believing that her demise was imminent by this time, she said she began preparing for her death and told her parents to donate all of her belongings to the Erin Kimball Foundation in Washington, Utah, because she knew she would never be coming home.
But in mid-May 2013, Sim resumed her secret conversations with Raj P. In a message, she thanked him for giving her a Bible when they were friends in Hyderabad. The Bible was the one book that had not been taken away from her and she read it constantly. Raj P. responded with appreciation and pushed her to go back to her parents.
Beginning of the end
One day, in May 2013, Sim’s captor made a comment that lit a fire inside her. “In one of his lunatic moods, he said, ‘your parents don’t love you,’ and I knew that wasn’t true,” she said, choking up in the retelling. “That gave me the strength to tell them.”
Sim reached her parents by phone, courtesy of data allotment Raj P. secretly arranged for her, and told them her story. Her father contacted the U.S. Consulate General in Chennai, who made contact with her by email and arranged for Sim to make her way to the Consulate. Sim designed an elaborate errand away from the home, and took a rickshaw to the Consulate where she met with U.S. Citizens Unit Chief Bonnie Long.
“She hasn’t been provided adequate food and looked particularly frail,” Long described Sim in an unclassified summary for the U.S. Consulate. ”She was very emotional and appeared to be in great distress.”
Although secure in the Consulate’s care, Sim wanted to return to Cobb-Phillips’ house one more time – to retrieve her Bible, she said. Long gave her money and food for the weekend and told her to call the police if she couldn’t escape the house again, and they planned to meet at the Consulate that Monday.
Sim’s return to the home did not go smoothly. The family discovered her packed suitcase and became angry, she said, with Cobb-Phillips hitting her and pushing her into the entryway, padlocking her inside. And yet, she connected with the police via the Indian equivalent of a 911 call. Recalling that moment, Sim said she was screaming her address into the phone and crying out, “I’m an American citizen.”
The police found her, and on July 8, 2013, with help from her father and the U.S. Consulate, Sim returned home.
In India, attorney Feroz Shaikh is working with local police on Sim’s behalf to bring action against Cobb-Phillips. Locally, Sim has filed police reports against Cobb-Phillips and obtained a protective order from Utah’s Fifth District Court, which have made their way to Interpol and India.
Given Sim’s experience, she hopes measures will be reached to help protect women who are away from their homeland. She aspires to work with legislative advocates in the United States to enact an international counterpart to the national Violence Against Women Act. She has corresponded with the first lady, Michele Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky concerning her experience. She has received help from and volunteers locally with the Erin Kimball Foundation and Dove Center in Washington County.
Cobb-Phillips continues to stalk Sim via Facebook and telephone and has made efforts to gain visa to the U.S. to no avail.
Sim’s healing process is ongoing. Action and speaking out against violence gives her a sense of strength from the outside, she said, but on the inside she is still a bowl of jelly. She progresses and has setbacks.
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Because an abuser often lives by the mantra, “If I can’t have you, no one else will either,” more than 70 percent of domestic violence injuries or deaths occur when the victim leaves or attempts to leave. If you or someone you know is trapped in an abusive relationship and needs help, you can call The National Domestic Violence Hotline, 24-hours a day, at 800-799-7233.
Ed. note: St. George News spoke with Raj P., who authenticated the electronic communications between he and Sim. For his protection, his abbreviated name is used in this report.
St. George News reporters Sarah Isaacson and Kimberly Scott contributed to this report.
Copyright St. George News, StGeorgeUtah.com Inc., 2013, all rights reserved.